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The Expendables - Sylvester Stallone interview

Sylvester Stallone directs The Expendables

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Sylvester Stallone talks about some of the challenges of making The Expendables, calling in favours and returning to old school, ‘80s action values.

He also defends the violence in his films and discusses why few films are being flogged on star power anymore…

Q. To what extent does the level of excitement and expectation surrounding this film bring extra challenges and responsibilities for you as writer, star and director?
Sylvester Stallone: Nah, that’s commonplace around my house. No really, it’s a lot of pressure. Sometimes you come in with a film and you know you’ve got a turkey and it’s not even Thanksgiving… it’s bad. But this time, this is the other end of it where there’s a great expectancy and you say to yourself: “Jeez, I didn’t really expect this when we started making it. Is this going to live up to people’s idea of it?” So, it’s kind of complex… you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Q. How would you compare your screen relationship with Dolph Lundgren now as opposed to 25 years ago on Rocky IV? Is the same dynamic there?
Sylvester Stallone: Well, first of all I’ve never trained harder for Rocky IV. Dolph’s thing was brutal because he’s a world class athlete. So, we got to know each other pretty well. But then times change, we go through ups and downs, marriages, things… and then. So, meeting him this time was really a pleasure because of all the actors I’ve worked with he’s remained the most grounded and humble, believe me! That can change a lot… acting is rough and very competitive.

So, yes, it [the dynamic] has changed. Plus, I’m dying to kick his brains in! He really beat me up badly in Rocky. I look at it now and go: “What was I thinking?” This guy’s a monster! In the first film, I’d just seen this fight with Marvin Hagler, who was fighting for the title and he just went crazy in the first round… he and Tommy Hearns were going at it. So, I said: “Dolph, I want you to try and knock me out… just for the first 30o seconds and I’ll do my best to protect myself because I know I can slip it…” He put me in the hospital for four days! And that was 30 seconds. So, I held a grudge! And it’s still not over.

Q. Did you have an all-female film crew to balance out the testosterone on set?
Sylvester Stallone: You don’t, you just fake it [laughs]. Guys are very aggressive. Let’s say Jason does an action beat and he’s very physical. You’ll see it on the documentary that his hands are on ice and then he’s leaping onto baked ground over and over again. He keeps wanting to do it, and I have to say ‘stop’. But then, the next person who has to do his stunt says: “Jason was rather good, I’m going to kill this guy!” So, it keeps building in competitiveness, which is why it feels like such a testosterone driven movie. Men are just naturally competitive and they want to keep upping the ante. I don’t know if there were any women around and if they were, they were tougher than the guys. But then you had to be tough to be on this show.

Q. Is there anyone who wanted to be involved that couldn’t do it, or didn’t want to do it? And was it easy getting the people you did get?
Sylvester Stallone: Well, at first it was just myself, Jason and Jet Li and it began to build from that. As I started getting other characters, at one time I thought about having Ben Kingsley as the bad guy, and Forest Whitaker… but I didn’t think it would fly. So, then I thought about going really old school and so I called up Dolph and he accepted immediately. But then I said: “You know, there aren’t a lot of bad asses out there today – guys who just want to get it on.” Now, I believe the younger generation, the guys coming up, would love to do this, to show their mettle, I really do… I’m not saying they’re reluctant to do it, there’s just not the opportunity to do it. But all young men want to prove themselves, it’s just part of it. It’s like getting older, you still want to keep proving yourself because it’s in the blood.

But there were none around, so that’s why I went to MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and got a five time world champion, who was really ferocious, and then Steve Austin is an incredibly powerful human being. Whatever you think about wrestling, they’re still tough guys – big, 250lb of solid muscle. And it just kept building from there. If you’re talking about Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, they just had different ideas on their career [pauses for effect]… so, I did the best I could [smiles]!

The Expendables

Q. Do stars still matter as much? Few films are being flogged on star potential as much as this film?
Sylvester Stallone: Yes, stars don’t matter that much, they really don’t. Concept matters. The overall originality or re-interpretation of a really classic situation… like Star Wars, for instance, would go back to the famous philosopher, Joseph Campbell, who spoke of the hero with a thousand faces. It was all variations on that. With Dolph and I – Jason was just a concept at this time – they’d put us in a film and would surround us with guys. They didn’t need to build character. But you can’t do that today. Rambo used to be a one man show, but even with the last Rambo I started doing that more… but those days are numbered. So, the business is reflective of that.

There is a lot at stake today, when you go from maybe 400 films a year to maybe 200 or maybe 150. Now, with studios, it’s even less. So, the stakes are really high and it’s become a science on what they make. So, there is no more: “Oh, I’ve got a gut feeling. I’m going to take a chance. I know everyone says ‘no’ but I’m going to try it anyway…” That’s gone. It’s all scientific and every actor is weighed against what he’s going to bring it from territories. It’s like a maths project, it really is.

Q. How does your faith inform the career choices you make? And do you ever feel the need to justify the violence in your films?
Sylvester Stallone: Well, I’ve made a lot of career mistakes, a lot… and actually a lot of personal ones too. Actually, I never started out to be an action actor, I was an ensemble actor. Rocky was an ensemble, FIST was an ensemble but then along came First Blood and it was the beginning of something unusual. Once all the dialogue was cut out, it was a completely visual film. I believe that the violence is very justifiable… the one thing in my films is that I only ever kill people that need to be killed. It’s killers killing killers.

In fact, one of the scenes that got cut from the movie is when we discuss what happened to the code. Jason said to me: “We used to only go after bad people…” And I replied: “The code died with apathy…” It showed my character had stopped caring. But let me put it this way… the ones that deserve it, get it and they get it good. And the ones that go after women really get it. Do you know what I mean? Really get it! So, if people ask me whether it’s overkill, I say: “Well, I’m not going to let a man go after a woman and do things to her and then just shoot him. He’s gonna feel real pain.” And I think the audience has that cathartic feeling. If you do that in every scene, then it becomes a horror film. But I don’t feel guilty about it at all.

Q. Talking of women, you could argue that the women are victims in this film and the men are slightly prehistoric perhaps?
Sylvester Stallone: No! Us… we’re prehistoric. We were like head waiters at The Last Supper… we had a dinosaur as a heli-pad. We’re old! Or at least I am [laughs]. But again, the depiction of women is like a throwback to the ‘80s, so I wanted to use that kind of set-up where a woman had this passion, she was a patriot, rather like Sophia Loren. As a matter of fact, I would have Giselle Itie look at her movies and say: “You’re that kind of fiery person.” I didn’t want to go into something a little too complex, controversial or politically correct. I wanted it to be old school. But in the end, that girl was water boarded for real! So talk about tough… she was right there with all the guys. Believe me!

Jason Statham in The Expendables

Q. You seem to be playing the father figure more… in the last Rocky, the last Rambo and now this through your relationship to Jason Statham on-screen. Is that intentional?
Sylvester Stallone: It’s very intentional. You have to be age appropriate and he [Jason] would be the protégé. So, I tease him a bit, especially about his love life and taking himself too seriously… the type of stuff a father and son might do. So, it’s not by accident. I try to always deal with redemption. I think everyone in this room, and everyone on the planet, has regret… that at one moment they made the wrong decision that sometimes just never gets your life back on course.

That theme, from Rocky Balboa to Rambo, it just haunts me. Maybe I’m limited, but it’s inextinguishable. So, this thing with Mickey Rourke, where he goes: “We used to be something, now we’re worth nothing because we gave up this…” It comes back to redemption… and how do they get this back? By doing something charitable… like Giselle says at the beginning: “Giving something for nothing is really a gift.” I didn’t want to over-burden the film and turn it into a talk-fest, because you couldn’t understand what I say anyway [laughs], but there are traces of it.

Q. The age of the action star… is it over? Or are we going to see more action films from you?
Sylvester Stallone: I’ve done my mind movies and I don’t think people are really that interested in seeing me dong them anymore. I think I’m past my prime in doing the dramatic films. I think it becomes almost a pathetic cry out to be recognised as a serious actor. I had my little moment… I’m very proud of the drama in Rocky Balboa, it’s about as deep as I can go, and Copland. So, I would much rather just direct dramas in the future. But with Expendables, I’d like to go on and do more with these guys.

Q. Why do you think people fell out of love with the action hero?
Sylvester Stallone: Every generation… I didn’t identify with John Wayne growing up, I identified with James Dean. You have to find your own heroes and this generation has defined superheroes as their heroes, so that’s why we’re kind of like a novelty. That’s the way it is… films change. Look at music, it’s unrecognisable from 20 years ago, but that’s just the way it is. But maybe they’ll go retro. Jason [Statham] is current, so that’s kind of lucky for us.

Q. To pay this cast in the ‘80s, you would have had to cough up everything you owned. How did you go about paying them now? Was it a lot of favours being called in?
Sylvester Stallone: A lot of it was calling in [laughs]. I could never afford Bruce [Willis] and Arnold [Schwarzenegger] in the same movie! That would have been the whole budget of the movie. Jason’s a lot of money, but well worth £100 a week! Seriously! But you’re absolutely right… it would have been totally impossible back in the day, and that’s one of the reasons they [the studios] didn’t do it because everyone back then wanted their price. Things are changing… prices are dropping. You’re lucky to get work.

So, whereas some people might have been getting $10 million a few years ago, now they’re down to about $2m and they’re going: “Thank you!” But this was all done on favours, it was really low budget. Some guys did it for nothing… meaning me! Back then, I certainly couldn’t have got Arnold and Bruce… not a chance! Never! [They were] just too expensive and too busy.

Read our review of The Expendables

Read our interview with Dolph Lundgren